Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
We often like to read something classic over Christmas for book group, but were a little uninspired when picking back in November. We resorted to reading a list of nobel prize-winners and Herman Hesse came up – we discounted Siddhartha as too mystical and The Glass Bead Game as too long, which led us to Steppenwolf – cue chorus of ‘Born to be Wild‘. Published in 1927, and in first English translation two years later, what an odd book it is…
It begins with an ‘Editor’s Preface’ in which an unnamed narrator introduces the surviving notebooks of Harry Haller, a man nearing fifty years old who takes rooms in the house owned by the narrator’s aunt. He tells us how Haller styles himself as ‘an old Steppenwolf’ (wolf of the Steppes), and even though the aunt and her house is rather bourgeois, he is won over as soon as he enters, ‘My, it does smell good here.’ The narrator carries on to tell us the little he had found out about Haller, and having read his papers entices us by saying:
I had no possible means of checking how far the experiences recounted by Haller in this manuscript corresponded to reality. That they are for the most part imaginative fictions, I don’t doubt, but not in the sense of stories arbitrarily invented. (p21)
Where Haller’s notebooks are concerned, these bizarre, partly pathological, partly beautiful fantasies rich in ideas, I’m bound to say that if they had chanced to come into my possession without my knowing their author, I would certainly have thrown them away in indignation. (p22)
We move on to read said notebooks which are prefaced with the title ‘For mad people only’. Within a few pages, whilst out walking he has discovered a building with a sign saying ‘Magic Theatre Admission Not For Everyone’, but the door is shut. It will take around a hundred pages of intense navel-gazing before we get to see inside. During that time, I considered giving up reading the book several times, especially when we got to an inserted section comprising the text of a tract – a mysterious booklet given to Haller – which is all about him! It explores the perceived duality of his personality, a mirror in which to see himself. The band Hawkwind wrote a song about Steppenwolf, (I also used its lyrics in this post’s title – see in full here) which sums it up neatly thus:
I am a man-wolf, the man in me would kill the wolf
I am a wolf man, the wolf in me would eat the man
I am a wolf man, who despises the striving of common men
By Dave Brock and Robert Newton Calvert (1976)
Haller resolves to commit suicide when he reaches fifty. He meets an old friend, now a professor, but they fall out – the academic criticizes Harry’s writing, Harry is disappointed at his friend’s new nationalism and picks fault with a romantic portrait of Goethe beloved by the academic’s wife. Leaving, he is so scared of going home and ending up killing himself early, he ends up in a dance hall – where everything changes when he meets Hermione, who says she is going to give him orders which he’ll carry out and in doing that she’ll make him fall in love with her.
When you are in love with me I shall give you my final order, and you’ll obey, which will be a good thing for you and for me. (p119)
Harry is drawn into Hermione’s world, ordered to learn how to dance, something he previously considered beneath him, but soon finds enabling. Her friends Pablo (who is reminiscent of the MC in Cabaret) and Marie, whom she instructs Haller to go out with, are always around and Hermione herself remains tantalisingly beyond reach – at one stage, appearing dressed up as a man. The final act will (at last) result in a visit to the Magical Theatre – where an opiated Haller will go on a really wild trip and find out Hermione’s final order. This last section was truly mad, deserving of the promise dangled back at the beginning of the book, and you can see why Timothy Leary et al made it a trippy cult classic in the 1960s.
I read the recent 2012 translation by David Horrocks, which has a superb afterword by the translator which explores some of the major themes in the book. Written when Hesse himself was approaching fifty and in the grip of a severe mid-life crisis, it’s clearly autobiographical – they share initials, and Horrocks tells us that Hesse had even taken some dancing lessons too.
What was also fascinating was to discover that Hesse intended Steppenwolf’s structure to resemble a sonata or fugue. Although never substantiated in detail, music does come into the narrative in various forms all the way through so this is a nice conceit, and you could say that some of the rather philosophical and repetitive themes in the first half in particular are like the subjects of a fugue which return again throughout the piece!
I imagine that anyone who knows more than me about Germany in the 1920s, the aftermath of WWI, the Weimar republic and the stirrings of new nationalism that led eventually to WWII, will find more implied criticisms of these times in Hesse’s writing, not to mention his general for and against attitude towards what you could call the discrete charm of the Bourgeoisie (I nicked that from Bunuel’s film).
None of our book group enjoyed the book as such – one even read it in German – but we did find much to discuss, and those of us who did read to the end felt a bit smug that we finally found the action and were rewarded for getting that far! This novel is interesting / tedious / downright mad / frustrating / schizophrenic / repetitive / insert word here – all of these and more. (6/10)
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Source: Own Copy.
Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics, 2012), paperback, 272 pages.